Black-footed ferret learning to hunt prairie dogs

Main image: Over 90 percent of the endangered black-footed ferret’s prey is prairie dogs, which themselves have been impacted by habitat loss as well as endemic disease that’s reducing numbers for ferrets to hunt. The National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado, breeds endangered black-footed ferrets and then prepares them for release into the wild. (Kimberly Fraser/USFWS/Flickr)

About half the species listed as endangered or threatened have the majority of their habitat on private lands, giving landowners an essential role in their conservation. The designation of a species as threatened or endangered can impact the lives of landowners, ranchers, and farmers by prohibiting activities that may be considered harmful interactions.

Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been the primary federal law aimed at conserving at-risk species and ecosystems. Under the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) maintains a list of endangered and threatened species identified for protection under the act. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is in charge of marine species.)

Under the terms of the ESA, it is unlawful to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” any listed species, or to “attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Such actions are known as “take” and include any activities that significantly modify or degrade habitat used by a listed  species at any point during its life cycle. Fines for taking a listed species run to thousands of dollars and increase for repeat violations.

The decision to list a species as endangered or threatened is based on scientific and commercial data, but landowners can provide input by contacting members of Congress and by writing letters to the FWS during the public comment period that is part of the listing process. Sometimes, public meetings are held as well, though this is not automatic.

The FWS engages in a variety of activities to protect and restore habitat and promote the recovery of listed species. Once a species has recovered to the point where it is able to survive without protection, it may be considered for delisting.

Over the years, the ESA has evolved to include incentives for landowners to undertake voluntary endangered species conservation efforts in collaboration with state and federal agencies and conservation organizations. Such programs provide benefits for both listed species and landowners. The species benefit from habitat conservation efforts, while landowners receive protection from future regulations and repercussions.

Endangered Indiana bats in Wyandotte Cave, Indiana
Indiana is home to 12 native species of bats, including the endangered Indiana bat (scientific name: Myotis sodalis). Located along the Ohio River in Harrison-Crawford State Forest, Wyandotte Cave is occupied by members of nine of those dozen species, including the Indiana bat, pictured here. (R. Andrew King/USFWS/Flickr)

Habitat Conservation Plans

Private landowners whose property supports endangered or threatened species can apply for an incidental take permit that allows them to continue developing their land provided they implement conservation measures. As part of the permit application, a landowner must submit a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) describing the predicted effects of the take, steps that will be taken to minimize or mitigate the impact, and how the plan will be financed.

Landowners who gain approval for their HCP are protected by a “no surprises policy” that guarantees the FWS will not apply any additional land use conditions beyond those established in the plan, even if circumstances change in the future.

California condor in flight at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge
Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge is the gateway into California condor country and one of the few places on the continent where you can see these critically endangered birds of prey. Today, fewer than 250 of these majestic birds exist in the wild in California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California. (Kim Valverde/USFWS/Flickr)

Safe Harbor Agreements

A Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) is a voluntary agreement between a non-federal property owner and either the FWS or NOAA that encourages landowners to undertake conservation measures to promote the recovery of endangered or threatened species.

In exchange for such actions, a landowner receives formal assurances that no additional management activities will be required beyond the terms of the agreement. Once the agreement expires (usually when a species has sufficiently recovered), the landowner is permitted to return the property to the condition it was in at the start of the agreement.

Tobusch fishhook cactus flowers
Named for its unique hooked spines, Tobusch fishhook cactus was listed as endangered in 1979 when fewer than 200 plants were thought to exist in the wild. In a success story for the Endangered Species Act, today some 4,500 plants now exist across its native Texas range and it was reclassified from endangered to threatened in 2018. (Chris Best/USFWS/Flickr)

Candidate Conservation Agreements

Another type of voluntary conservation agreement between landowners and the federal government is called a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA). These are coordinated by the FWS, which works to identify threats to species; develop agreements with willing public or private landowners; and design, implement, and monitor conservation measures. Unlike Safe Harbor Agreements, CCAs may involve multiple public and private property owners.

The goal of CCAs is to preserve at-risk “candidate” species before they are listed under the ESA. By participating in such agreements, landowners can help prevent species from being listed, thereby reducing the costs of species recovery and eliminating additional regulatory burdens.

Newly hatched bog turtle in northern New Jersey
Newly hatched bog turtle in northern New Jersey with yolk sac still attached. Listed as endangered in 1997, the species is threatened by habitat loss from wetland alteration, development, pollution and invasive species, as well as illegal poaching. (Kim Valverde/USFWS/Flickr)

Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances

An expansion of traditional CCAs, Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) provide additional incentives to non-federal landowners to undertake voluntary conservation measures. In exchange for taking action to protect potentially at-risk species, landowners receive assurances that they will not be subject to additional restrictions if an at-risk species later becomes listed under the ESA. The goal is to make listing unnecessary by protecting landowners from future regulatory burdens in exchange for proactive management activities.

Whooping cranes in flight
Whooping cranes are one of the marquee species included among the 2,000-plus species on the Endangered Species List. A pioneering program to train cranes bred in captivity to follow traditional migratory routes by following a “parent” microlight aircraft has garnered the species’ recovery efforts significant international attention. (Jim Carpenter/USFWS/Flickr)

Conservation Banks

Conservation banking provides a way of compensating landowners for permanently setting aside land for conservation. A conservation bank is a parcel of land with high natural resource value that is permanently protected from future development. In exchange for setting aside land, the landowner receives credits that can be sold to third parties seeking to offset environmental impacts elsewhere. For example, buying credits from a conservation bank owner is a simple way for developers to meet requirements to compensate for the negative impacts of their projects.

To set aside land as a conservation bank, a landowner must enter into an official Conservation Banking Agreement with the FWS; grant a conservation easement to a third-party organization, such as a land trust, public agency, or nonprofit conservation organization; and establish an endowment to provide funding for the monitoring, and long-term management, of the conservation bank. In return, the FWS approves the landowner to sell a certain number of habitat and species credits.

image of sub-adult pallid sturgeon, a fish species on the USFWS Endangered Species List
A sub-adult pallid sturgeon in Neosho National Fish Hatchery’s visitor center. The hatchery, located in the Ozark Mountain Region of southwest Missouri, is the oldest operating federal fish hatchery in the United States, and is dedicated to rearing species including the endangered pallid sturgeon. (Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS/Flickr)

Tax Deductions for Species Conservation

Under the 2008 Farm Bill, farmers who undertake certain conservation measures to promote the recovery of endangered and threatened species may be eligible for a tax deduction. To qualify for this deduction, the expenses must be for site-specific measures specified in an approved FWS recovery plan for the species. The expenses may not exceed more than twenty-five percent of one’s income from farming.

To determine whether conservation expenses are deductible, it’s best to consult a tax advisor.

  • Annika Hipple is a freelance writer and photographer who covers travel, environmental issues, sustainable development, and other topics. Her work has appeared in BBC Travel, Sierra Magazine, Time Out, in-flight magazines, and numerous other publications.

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